Middle-Class Conversations

Great Britain


Okay, before we embark on this, I’m going to attempt to explain the British class system again.

At some point in every British gathering or dinner party the subject of class raises its head. It’s a complex, thorny issue, and a curious one. Roughly speaking, the nation is divided into three bands, working, middle and upper, but only one of these – the middle – is subdivided into a further three bands of lower, middle and upper. Working out where you stand is made more difficult because the middle band is the only mutable one. In your lifetime it’s likely that you’ll move up a peg. This is because of a/ external factors such as quality of life, and b/ personal determination. The working and upper classes are birthrights – the middle is not.

This means that although I was (I imagine) lower-middle I am now middle-middle. My parents were a scientist and the company secretary for a legal firm respectively – both white-collar careers requiring qualifications – but they were always broke. However, they owned their own house by the time they were 30. I went to a guild-school, one of the oldest in England, and got there by passing exams, but this school became fee-paying after I left. I ran my own company of around 75 people and bought my own home at 23 in central London for about £20k (read that and weep, modern Londoners – yes, it was possible once). So who are the upper-middle? They’re the privately educated ones with more land and chains of companies.

My mother had a complicated notion of class. If I may quote from my memoir ‘Paperboy’:

I was not allowed to mix with the kids from the next street because they lived above shops and were therefore ‘common’. Kath had a peculiar sense of what constituted commonness. Heinz Baked Beans, football, spam, The Daily Mirror, council flats, motorbikes, public displays of emotion, playing in the street, television, shouting, swearing, braces, the Labour Party, plimsolls worn with trousers, over-familiarity and failure to hold a knife and fork properly were unconscionable to someone who had been raised in a household that had only allowed reading, praying and going for brisk walks on the Sabbath. She didn’t like loud coughing either, although she was prepared to excuse Mr Hill next door, who had a cough like a duck’s death-rattle, because he had contracted it in the trenches. The fact that my mother did not know who her parents were was immaterial; it was a matter of how you were raised, nurture over nature, that was important. Grace, silence, acquiescence and politeness were everything, as was knowing your place and staying in it. Her own mother might have been a prostitute for all she knew, but it did not excuse going out on the Sabbath without gloves.

I’m glad we’ve got that settled. I did warn you.

So, last week I performed at the South Bank Literary Festival in the Royal Festival Hall, where the bongs of Big Ben invaded the room and the London Eye glittered as my backdrop. Outside, there was a very posh street market serving all manner of food. It was pouring with rain, and as I passed through I heard several gems of middle-class conversation, including;

‘One simply gets SO tired of modern dance.’

‘I can’t trust my nanny to buy organic at Waitrose.’

And this gem:

‘I must say John Lewis has a very inadequate selection of prosciutto tongs.’

Who knew you could get such things, let alone a selection?

Of course it’s the middle-classes who feel most put-upon and cash-strapped, overtaxed and burdened with school fees.Crushed from both sides, they feel aggrieved and protective. Alan Clark famously said that the middle-classes were ‘people who buy their own furniture’ (i.e. they don’t inherit it). And one thinks of the proletarian washerwoman singing as she hangs out laundry in George Orwell’s ‘1984’, complacently happy with her lot while Winston Smith tears himself apart about ideologies.

The middle-class lot is not a happy one. But it’s always fun to write about. I thought about posting the famous John Cleese & the Two Ronnies sketch about class, but then I found this updated version:

8 comments on “Middle-Class Conversations”

  1. Jo W says:

    Thanks for that,Admin. Nothing like a good laugh first thing to get motivated for another damp,grey day.

  2. Mim says:

    Heh, no-one apart from the British gets the British class system – and maybe it would be better for all of us if we didn’t.

    I’m firmly working class in origin, made it up to middle thanks to a free education… but university tuition fees and the requirements for unpaid internships to get a foothold in many professions now mean I believe mine is the last generation of working class kids to have so many opportunities 🙁 It’s all very well ‘raising aspirations’, but without practical help and access to education, all Britain is currently doing is raising frustrated working class kids with dreams they can never achieve…

    Ahem. Politics. Shut up, Mim.

  3. Alan Morgan says:

    It’s important to relate to computer programmers fuelled with their desperate protestations to being middle class that they aren’t actually a profession. Architect scrapes in, after that it’s upward to doctors and so on. They are after all just overcomplicating filing for their own ego, and thus really just uppity working class at best.

    Whereas anyone in the arts is a fop in a big shirt barely a good strong gust away from dancing over the hills like a floppy-haired kite wondering at daffodils. Boho poverty optional, but frightfully arty middle class.*

    They hate that. But then they’re Lib-Dems anyway so there’s a lot of hate going around. 🙂

    *I have a big shirt. But being a southerner in the Lakes it’s a law, or a tradition, or something. There might have been a ceremony.

  4. agatha hamilton says:

    Grace and politeness are still quite good, aren’t they? Though perhaps not – ‘knowing your place and staying in it.’
    I expect prosciutto tongs could double up for Spam, if you were unfortunate enough to fall a couple of classes.

  5. Helen Martin says:

    I don’t know – our family has sort of shifted around a lot since I have a British colonel, a high school principal (who played trumpet till he lost his lip, then switched to violin) a couple of generations of Irish coal minors (and probably more if I can find them)desperate emigres from northern Germany and a university professor of music. Over here the two classes are mostly with or without money. Culture is an option.

  6. Helen Martin says:

    They had actually passed their majority perhaps, although the last one was actually a minor miner. (sorry, I’m leaving.)

  7. John says:

    I don’t call that kind of talk middle class I call it f***in’ pretentious and self-important.
    It’s snobbery, plain and simple.

    I grew up middle class in a Connecticut suburb where the denizens thought a lot about themselves. Throughout the 70s my hometown, which has a tiny place in Revolutionary War history, even called itself a village. The population was close to 22,000 people in 1979 when I graduated high school. That’s some village! I’m proud of being middle class but I don’t talk about the price of prosciutto tongs. I never even knew such a thing existed. So I’m clearly lower middle class, aren’t I? ;^) What the hell — I loved being near the poverty level throughout my post college days. Taught me a lot about survival. Now forty years later I’m comfortable with a good steady income, but finding myself becoming a very grumpy condo owner dealing with the entitlement of those who aspire to a “class” they don’t really deserve. Common courtesy goes a long way regardless of where you fall in the pecking order. I find very little of it displayed in the actions of our two newest residents.

  8. snowy says:

    Alan, I suspect you are being ‘fattened-up’, if they ever start building a wicker sheep on the nearest hill, I’d run like buggery. 😉

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